Silent for So Long, Elderly Gays Livestream at Full Volume


HUNAN, Central China — Hu Pingsheng never knew there was a name for his feelings until a younger man explained it to him: He was gay. Despite a desire to live his true self, however, he has kept that revelation from his family. But a few months ago, he finally found a place to be who he wants to be, and he’s even found some small-time fame in the process.

On a rainy afternoon in Chenzhou, the relatively small city some 400 kilometers north of Hong Kong where Hu has a sixth-floor apartment, the 68-year-old dons his favorite navy blue suit and sits down in front of his camera. He’s about to livestream on Blued, China’s largest social networking app for gay men and the one place where the twice-divorced Hu feels like he can be himself. “When I was young, I didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t have the chance to get to know men I adore,” he says. “I feel like I’m now making up for my loss.”

A Blued spokesperson says the app’s livestreaming feature, available since 2016, has seen “hundreds of thousands” of users turn their cameras on themselves. Though the majority of them are young, Blued has noticed a rise in livestreamers aged over 50 since the second half of 2018. Hu attributes this to the closeted lives that gay men of his generation lead. “We have a limited circle of friends, and most of us haven’t come out to our families,” says Hu. “Without livestreaming, my life is boring and stressful.”

Hu fills his hourslong livestreams mostly by singing. He kicks off today’s show with his greatest hit, “Qinghai-Tibet Plateau,” one of the best-known tracks in China. Though Hu cannot quite master the high notes at the end of the song without his voice cracking, it still wins him a few dozen likes. He then performs “Over the Golden Hill of Beijing,” which became a household song in the early 1970s. “Chairman Mao is like the bright golden sun,” he sings, gently swaying with the rhythm.

Inside Hu Pingsheng’s home in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Inside Hu Pingsheng’s home in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying

Hu, who calls himself “Tasty Mango” on Blued, has learned to sing some 200 songs and has hundreds more downloaded to his phone that he wants to add to his repertoire. Red classics about Chairman Mao and Communist Party history are his favorites, he says. On a good day, he’ll have over 1,000 viewers — but he averages a couple hundred. He greets each of them as they join the stream.

As on other Chinese platforms, viewers on Blued can buy virtual gifts for livestreamers, which they can then exchange back into money. So far, Hu has earned more than 10,000 so-called beans, which amounts to 1,000 yuan ($150). But Hu’s not in it for the money. The retired accountant has a monthly pension of over 3,000 yuan, which he says can ensure him a comfortable life in Chenzhou.

Compared with more developed coastal cities such as Shanghai and Guangzhou, where people are more open about and tolerant toward sexual minorities, public gay life in inland cities such as Chenzhou is almost nonexistent. “I realized many people here still don’t know what ‘gay’ means,” says Liang Junjie, a swimming coach who hails from Guangzhou but has been living in Chenzhou for a few years. He is a fan of Hu and has sent him virtual gifts. “I think he’s handsome, and I’m happy that he can do things he really enjoys,” says the 26-year-old.

Liang has known he was gay since middle school. A few years ago, he came out to his parents — which he says is something people his age would consider doing, but is rare for older generations. Hu, for his part, didn’t know he was gay until 2000, a year before homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in China. A young man approached him at a park in Chenzhou and took him to a gay bar. There, someone told him he was gay. “I always knew I admired men, but it had never occurred to me that there is a word to define my sexuality,” he says.

Born and raised in the countryside, Hu always longed for an urban lifestyle. He moved to the local county seat in his late teens and in 1984 married his first wife after they’d been introduced by a matchmaker. A few years later, fed up with her short temper, he filed for divorce and moved to Chenzhou, where he married his second wife. This union also ended with a separation, on account of “personality clashes.” He’s not sure whether his sexuality played any role in the divorces.

Hu has two daughters — one with each of his ex-wives. He hasn’t come out to either of them and doesn’t plan to, uncertain of whether they will accept it. Hu’s family also doesn’t know about his antics on Blued, but he doesn’t worry about what might happen if his relatives saw him on the platform. “I’m not doing anything nasty or wrong,” he says. “I’m just doing what I love: singing.”

Hu Pingsheng’s livestreaming equipment in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Hu Pingsheng’s livestreaming equipment in Chenzhou, Hunan province, April 14, 2019. Fan Yiying

While it’s just a passion project for Hu, others hope the nascent popularity of elderly livestreamers will become a source of income. Wang Liyun, originally from the northeastern province of Jilin, stepped into the senior gay livestreaming business after hearing about its profit-generating potential from friends. China’s livestreaming market is already huge and still growing: According to a 2018 National Copyright Administration report, the market was worth nearly 40 billion yuan in 2017, fueled by virtual gift-giving. Popular streamers can earn a living wage, if not significantly more.

Wang’s approach was to start a group — a common format in which several singers live together and alternate behind the microphone. A “boss,” like Wang, organizes the group and provides accommodation and food. Participants get a cut from the gifts they earn. According to Wang’s own observations, there are over 200 groups of men over 45 on Blued. Their fans are of all ages. “A successful group can attract over 8,000 fans and receive as much as 60,000 beans per day,” Wang, 55, tells Sixth Tone.

With that goal in mind, Wang started looking for candidates all over the country to join his group in his home in Dongguan, a city in the southern province of Guangdong. Wang, who identifies as gay, only wants to hire gay men — he scoffs at groups on Blued that hire straight, amateur singers pretending to be queer — who are between 40 and 60 years old, decent-looking, and good at singing and interacting with fans.

Since he started in March, over a dozen men have livestreamed with Wang’s group, but turnover is high, especially when gift-giving disappoints. “When they realize they are incapable of getting beans, they just leave after a few days,” Wang sighs. He has invested over 30,000 yuan into his venture with returns, so far, of about 10,000 yuan. “When I start to make a profit, I’ll buy fancy lights and LED wallpaper to decorate the studio,” he says.

Last November, Hu joined a similar group. He took the train to Zhuzhou, a city about 300 kilometers north of Chenzhou, and sang with a group called Magic Dragons, consisting of four men — all gay and about the same age. For eight hours a day they sang from a living room-turned-studio, adorned with a color-changing crystal ceiling light and background wallpaper featuring the Great Wall. “It was more gorgeous and magnificent than any karaoke rooms that I’ve been to,” he recalls.

Before Hu would start his shifts, an announcer would hype up the audience and introduce him: “Now let’s welcome Uncle Hu from Chenzhou, Hunan. He’s 68 years old, 165 centimeters tall, and weighs 60 kilograms. Look: He’s slim, light-skinned, and handsome! Show your love with flowers, grass, or whatever (digital gifts)!” Hu says he felt embarrassed at first, but later started playing along, asking for more beans. He enjoyed singing with others and was paid 1,600 yuan for half a month’s work.

But most of all, Hu feels relieved finally knowing who he is, as do many gay men his age, he says. He’s got trips planned to the eastern cities of Nantong and Shanghai, as well as southern Shenzhen, to join livestream groups there. “If there’s a platform where I can do what I love,” he says, “I don’t want to waste another minute regretting not doing things that make me happy.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

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Artist Brings ‘Haha-Then-Aha’ Moments to China’s Gender Debate


SICHUAN, Southwest China — In most Chinese bookstores, there’s a section of bright pink books instructing women on how to be a good housewife or find a man before they hit 30.

But at an out-of-the-way underground art space some distance from provincial capital Chengdu’s city center, there are how-to books of a different kind. “Be a Man Who Never Cries,” instructs one. Other titles include: “Men, Don’t Lose Arguments Because You Don’t Know How to Fight” and “‘Bad Boys’ Go Everywhere; Good Boys Go to Heaven.”

It’s a typically tongue-and-cheek part of artist Wu Kangyang’s latest exhibition, held in Chengdu in October. In another area of the industrial-style room with exposed brick walls, there’s a platform where men are encouraged to sit or stand and think about why men rape women, rather than asking women what they can do to keep themselves safe from rapists. There are large white posterboards, mimicking the instructional boards you might find in a “feminine virtues” class, except these have phrases like: “Virginity is a man’s best betrothal gift;” “Do not participate in dinners where women are present; problems could creep up on you;” “Be alert on the bus. Don’t give female hoodlums an opportunity to be indecent;” and “Giving birth to a boy is useless. A married son is like spilled water.”

Since Wu’s first exhibition on heterosexuality went viral in April, he’s become known for his works that first make his audience giggle, and then reflect. It’s a unique approach in China, where many still hold traditional views on gender, and if the issues feature in art at all, artists rarely take a lighthearted tack. Wu’s witty commentary on stereotypes is especially popular online, where it plays into a national gender debate that has repeatedly surfaced in recent years following news about harassment on public transportationmedia misogyny, and misconduct in universities and workplaces. Wu’s even been given promotional support from NetEase, one of China’s biggest tech companies.

A visitor poses next to a white posterboard that reads: “Virginity is a man’s best betrothal gift,” at Wu Kangyang’s exhibition in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

A visitor poses next to a white posterboard that reads: “Virginity is a man’s best betrothal gift,” at Wu Kangyang’s exhibition in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Born and raised in the city of Mianyang — about 130 kilometers northeast of Chengdu — Wu, now 29, developed his love of art while accompanying his mother, a retired textile worker, to the factory where she mixed colors. Despite his artistic bent, Wu caved to pressure from his parents to major in English, which they thought would make it easier for him to find work. When his classmates became teachers after graduation, Wu instead started his career in art and now works in a private art gallery. On the side, he makes money arranging holiday installations for shopping malls and follows his less lucrative passion of creating exhibitions on the issues of gender and sexuality.

It’s a subject close to home for Wu, who has known he was gay since middle school. Nevertheless, he’s never told his parents and doesn’t plan to, worried they’d isolate themselves from their friends out of shame. “Maybe they’ve already figured out that I’m gay, and it’s just that no one wants to talk about it,” Wu says. “I would feel relieved if I were to come out of the closet, but the reality might put them into a closet.” His mother and father, he says, are mostly interested in watching TV dramas and political news, respectively. They have little notion of their son’s popularity.

Wu’s latest show was inspired by an argument over China Central Television’s annual back-to-school gala, which featured a performance by a group of so-called little fresh meat entertainers — delicate, handsome, and often feminine young men. Parents criticized the national broadcaster en masse for imparting “non-masculine” and “non-positive and uplifting” values on their children. The discussion reached the highest echelons of Chinese public debate: While state news agency Xinhua said such “sissy pants” represent a “sick culture” that would negatively impact the nation’s children, Party newspaper People’s Daily argued modern society allows a diversity of interpretations of what it means to be a man.

Wu says he didn’t take the debate seriously until he noticed some middle-aged male curators that he admires share articles such as “Sissy Young Boys Lead to a Weak Country” on messaging app WeChat. “I was shocked and angry,” he says, adding that society puts pressure on men with expectations that they have a well-paid job, act tough, and don’t cry. “When ‘sissy pants’ becomes a trend, it challenges mainstream ideas and makes some people uncomfortable and anxious,” he tells Sixth Tone.

Wu decided to satirize women’s bookshelves and feminine virtues course posters because they were eye-catching and simple, making them perfect for getting his message across — and going viral on social media. But it was about more than just popularity: He wanted people to rethink their ideas.

On a chilly weekday during his six-day exhibition, visitors laugh out loud and take selfies with the installations, immediately uploading them to social media. Wu, who wears round, Harry Potter-style glasses and sports floral tattoos on his forearm, isn’t sure they’ve understood his intentions, yet he prefers not to explain his work to the visitors. “Everyone has their own views, and maybe their understanding is deeper than mine,” he says.

Wu Kangyang sits on a platform at his exhibition that encourages men to think about why they rape women, rather than asks women what they can do to keep themselves safe from rapists, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Wu Kangyang sits on a platform at his exhibition that encourages men to think about why they rape women, rather than asks women what they can do to keep themselves safe from rapists, in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

But plenty of people seem to get the message. Luo Zhihui, 23, just moved to Chengdu for a master’s degree. He identifies as gay and has read about Wu’s other gender-equality exhibitions on social media. This is his first visit. The art-lover describes himself as sissy, but it’s not a negative word in his mind. It’s just who he is. “I’m slim. I care about my looks, but it doesn’t make me less of a man,” he tells Sixth Tone after visiting the exhibition.

Luo says he’s been to a few other exhibitions calling for gender equality, but they all look too serious. Wu can’t agree more. “Many people think that when discussing social issues, they must use a kind of hateful resentment,” he says. “They must shout slogans and stand in opposition. I think this is a misunderstanding, which creates a greater communication barrier.”

Wu used a similar sense of humor in his April exhibition on heterosexuality. Visitors were presented with a “Chengdu Heterosexuals Map,” which shows the places in the city where straight men tend to hang out. Then, photoshopped news headlines: “Global Outbreak of Heterosexual Demonstrations, Anti-discrimination Fight is Everyone’s Responsibility;” “Celebrities Speak Out in Support of Heterosexual Rights;” “Heterosexual Marriage Has Been Passed, History has Been Changed.” The show was aiming to turn discourse on its head, posing a series of questions: What is heterosexuality? What is the origin of heterosexuality? How can you recognize someone who is heterosexual?

Once again, that exhibition had been inspired by the news. That same month, microblogging site Weibo purged LGBT-related comics and videos amid a crackdown on violent and “lewd” content. A few days later, the site backtracked after a public backlash. Wu, who is unimpressed by the efforts of LGBT groups in Chengdu, believes his art can help raise awareness about LGBT issues.

Sometime before noon during the October exhibition, Huang Xinya walks in. Believing that gender equality is an important issue, she decided to check it out after reading about it on Douban, an app for reviews of books, movies, and art. Huang, 24, says she is one of the many young women who are fans of the “little fresh meat” aesthetic. “I don’t understand why many people say they are sissy,” she says. “And even if they are, what’s the problem?”

With Chinese women becoming more independent and fighting for equality in all aspects of life, Huang says, “we can like any type of men we want, instead of longing for a tough and masculine man to take care of us.” Huang mentions the changing attitudes toward men wearing makeup: “Everyone has the right to make themselves look good, which has nothing to do with gender.” Plus, she adds, “there are more than just two genders, male and female, in the world.”

Joy Lin, the founder of Shanghai-based feminist organization We and Equality, finds many Chinese people still hold stereotypical views on how men and women should dress and behave. She mentions a “feminine virtues” summer camp held in eastern Zhejiang province last August which reportedly taught children that wearing revealing clothes would cause rape. A similar workshop held in northeastern China in 2017 taught married women to swallow their husbands’ insults and eschew divorce at all cost. At the same time, many schools in recent years have introduced masculinity courses that teach boys how to be “true” men.

Visitors at Wu Kangyang’s exhibit are encouraged to put a red sticker on a water bottle if they prefer being straight in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Visitors at Wu Kangyang’s exhibit are encouraged to put a red sticker on a water bottle if they prefer being straight in Chengdu, Sichuan province, Oct. 24, 2018. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Lin praises Wu’s use of irony in challenging mainstream beliefs. “It’s a smart way for spreading ideas and educating the public,” she says. “These ironic phrases first make people laugh, and then think.”

While Wu believes that Chinese society has become more aware and supportive of gender and sexual minorities, LGBT and feminism are still sensitive topics. The downtown mall that was the original venue for his heterosexuality exhibition backed out of hosting it, meaning he held it in a private art space instead. He was recently given a list of words that are unofficially banned by authorities, including “homosexual.” And although Chengdu — his home for over six years — has a reputation for being China’s queer capital, Wu believes this reputation is unfounded. People in Chengdu care about pandas — there’s a breeding center in the city — and will line up for hours to try a newly opened hot pot restaurant, but when it comes to gender equality and the LGBT movement, Chengdu trails behind cities like Shanghai and Beijing, he says.

“I’m trying to make Chengdu a better city by making people think about real issues in my own humorous way,” Wu says. “I hope one day when Chengdu is in the headlines, it’s for more than just cute pandas and tasty hot pot.”

Nevertheless, Wu’s work has already made some people change their minds. After seeing Wu’s success, the downtown mall venue realized they made a mistake. “[They] regretted canceling the exhibition after seeing it was that popular,” Wu says. “I then responded that they’re not very farsighted.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

Telling Ambiguous, Ambitious Gay Stories


BEIJING — It’s the evening before filming starts, but director Lu Zhan and her main actor, Yang Zhenguo, can’t agree on what the script is really trying to say. Is “Summer” a gay movie?

“It’s a love story that just happens to be between two young men,” Lu says, sitting on one of the beds in Yang’s hotel room.

“Summer,” a short film project by students at Communication University of China in Beijing, tells the story of two young men working in a noodle shop who develop feelings for each other. To Yang, the script seems straightforward: Both characters are unequivocally gay.

“That’s only in your eyes,” Lu responds. In her mind, Yang’s character, Dongzi, is straight, and Ah Zhen, his maybe-love interest, is bisexual. A long silence follows while Lu and Yang mull over the script.

The film’s producer and scriptwriter, 22-year-old Yang Zhiyuan, says he meant to sow confusion. “Some people might think it’s a strong friendship between two straight boys, while others might believe they are gay and fall for each other,” says Yang Zhiyuan — no relation to Yang Zhenguo. He wants to “leave some room for the audience to think and imagine.”

The trailer for the film ‘Summer.’ Courtesy of Yang Zhiyuan

Yang Zhiyuan’s crew, some of whom are his friends who are volunteering as actors and makeup artists to keep the budget small, have gathered in the Beijing suburb of Tongzhou for four days of shooting. It’s a small production for a short film that might not have much of a viewership outside of campus. But the story’s themes mean that the movie is a statement of sorts.

According to Yang Zhiyuan, the creative environment on campus is free, and teachers and students enjoy mutual respect. But when officials visit the school — which has a reputation for its movie, art, and broadcasting programs — projects with queer themes are not presented or mentioned. When Yang Zhiyuan, a digital media and art major, brought up the idea of an LGBT-themed story for a short film assignment, his teachers allowed it but were reluctant. “They are afraid that they can’t give us proper guidance,” he explains. “They don’t have any experience in this area.”

It’s not just Yang Zhiyuan’s teachers who are cautious with LGBT content. In April, gay romance blockbuster “Call Me By Your Name” was pulled from its scheduled screening at the Beijing International Film Festival. A month later, the European Broadcasting Union terminated its partnership with China’s Mango TV after the station cut and blurred out gay-themed content from its broadcast of the Eurovision singing contest. Industry guidelines for TV shows and online content say to avoid depicting homosexuality.

On the other hand, China’s LGBT community has become more visible and vocal. In April, microblogging site Weibo deleted accounts and posts with “comics and graphic short videos of homosexuality.” But after an outcry from its users — both LGBT individuals and allies — Weibo canceled the purge. In the same month, authorities approved “Looking for Rohmer” for nationwide release — the first gay-themed film to achieve this.

Actors rehearse a dancing scene on the set of ‘Summer’ in Beijing, May 13, 2018. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

Actors rehearse a dancing scene on the set of ‘Summer’ in Beijing, May 13, 2018. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

On the first day of the “Summer” shoot, one of the scheduled scenes is the story’s climax. It takes place on a roof near the noodle shop owned by Ah Zhen’s father, where 18-year-old Ah Zhen has started working after finishing vocational school. Dongzi, a 21-year-old university student who works in the shop for the summer, suddenly hugs Ah Zhen from behind through a bedsheet that has been hung up to dry. The two end up dancing on the rooftop, tenderly and awkwardly.

Cai Rongchen, a Beijing Dance Academy sophomore who plays Ah Zhen, thinks “Summer” is about youthful innocence and discovery. “Both characters are in the process of searching for their identities,” he tells Sixth Tone.

At the start of the 15-minute film, Ah Zhen narrates: “I always thought each summer was the same, days spent between a boy and a girl. But that summer, everything was a little … different.” Initially, Ah Zhen is attracted to a local girl, and Dongzi — who sees himself as a relationship expert — gives Ah Zhen advice on how to woo her. But sparks soon seem to fly in a different direction.

To Cai, Ah Zhen isn’t sure about his sexual orientation until he meets Dongzi — an experience to which Cai can relate. When he was younger, he, too, was interested in girls. But two years ago, after befriending a gay man, Cai became involved in the LGBT community in his hometown in eastern China’s Shandong province and gradually realized that he was gay, too. “I did have some feelings toward boys at school before, but I didn’t know what it was,” he says.

One of Cai’s favorite films is “Brokeback Mountain,” which he watched before he became aware of his attraction to men — and before he knew that the movie was about gay love. “What they have is beautiful, as I’ve always believed love has nothing to do with gender,” he says.

In that movie, the main characters keep their relationship a secret, afraid of the inevitable disapproval. “Summer” doesn’t deal with such themes — to the disappointment of one crew member. “She holds the idea that all gay films should contain discrimination from society, family standing in the way, self-denial, and lack of self-awareness, but I really don’t think it’s necessary,” writer-producer Yang Zhiyuan says.

Yang Zhiyuan poses for a photo in Beijing, May 12, 2018. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

Yang Zhiyuan poses for a photo in Beijing, May 12, 2018. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone

Students at Communication University of China, one of the country’s best art universities, tell Sixth Tone that the percentage of LGBT students enrolled there seems higher than at other schools, though there are no numbers to verify this. Homophobia persists at schools around China, but at the university, most LGBT students have come out without any discrimination from their peers or faculty, students say. “I chose this school partially because the LGBT students are treated equally on campus,” says Yang Zhiyuan, who identifies as gay.

All of Yang Zhiyuan’s movies depict gay themes. His first short film, a comedy, was drawn from personal experience: It centers on a gay man who is looking for a place to relax while waiting for his next train, and who then steps into a bathhouse that offers massages. The female masseuse gives him plenty of sexually tinted hints that service options extend beyond what is advertised, but the man, oblivious, fails to pick up on them. The masseuse eventually gives up, assuming he has erectile dysfunction.

Yang Zhiyuan’s second short film is a love story between a student and an office worker. They live together, but their relationship struggles as they keep their love a secret outside the house. The office worker is not out at work and never introduces the student as his boyfriend.

The films are careful not to be too explicit — neither have kissing scenes, for example. Nevertheless, when Yang Zhiyuan attempted to upload his films to Tencent Video, they were rejected for “breaking with regulations.” Such experiences have made Yang Zhiyuan determined to produce as many gay-themed films as possible during his time in university, as he is afraid there won’t be many chances to do so after graduation. “I predict that in the next five to 10 years, China won’t allow commercial gay films on the market,” he says. “I cherish the freedom to express myself at the university.”

In “Summer,” neither of the protagonists explicitly expresses his feelings. In the final scene — at the end of summer — Ah Zhen rushes to the bus station to catch Dongzi before he leaves. But Ah Zhen arrives too late. He returns to the rooftop, thinking back to when they danced together, and recalls Dongzi saying: “Having feelings for someone is the most beautiful emotion in the world. If you choose to give up this feeling, there’s nothing to chase in life.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

China’s LGBT Youth Face Lots of Bullying, Little Acceptance


From his first day at school, Sun Bin, now 21, was bullied for being feminine, a “sissy.”

“I’m used to being called a faggot or a pervert,” said Sun, who is now a junior at a university in central China’s Henan province.

There’s one instance from primary school that Sun will never forget. A dozen or so female classmates one day picked him up, carried him to the girls’ bathroom, and threw him inside. “I was scared and crying in the bathroom for hours,” Sun told Sixth Tone. “I felt hopeless and humiliated.”

Most LGBT — lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender — students aren’t sure of their own gender identity or sexual orientation until they are in high school. Their classmates, on the other hand, are much quicker to draw conclusions, labeling anyone who deviates from the norm as “gay.”

“We got bullied because we are different, and being different is not appreciated,” said Sun.

School bullying in general is a widely discussed topic in China, and it even came up during the recently concluded “two sessions” — annual meetings of China’s top legislative and advisory bodies. Policy advisor Shang Shaohua noted that gender equality and gender diversity in particular should be included in teacher training as a preventive measure.

Though Shang’s initiative was widely applauded in LGBT circles, many feel that more should be done to raise awareness. “As a group, students of sexual minorities remain neglected by the public,” said Liu Zhaohui, a project officer at Tongyu, a Beijing-based lesbian advocacy group. “When they are bullied at school, they often have nobody to turn to for help.”

Sun’s experiences don’t stand alone. Chinese media reported last year that a female student was drugged with an aphrodisiac by three male students in Huangshan City, eastern China’s Anhui province because they wanted to see a lesbian “making a fool of herself.” The case was deemed a prank by the teachers and the police, and the boys got off with a warning.

Tongyu in 2016 surveyed 3,452 LGBTI (“I” for “intersex”) students about their school environment. Of the respondents — whose average age was 20 — more than two-fifths said bullying and violence against sexual minority students happened in their schools. Of the victims, over half were verbally bullied by homophobic remarks and were told to “pay attention to” their behavior and self-expression. Fourteen percent of victims were sexually harassed by their classmates or teachers.

“In some severe cases, victims were expelled from school or forced to transfer,” Liu at Tongyu told Sixth Tone on Monday, adding that such recourses violate the students’ right to an education.

Sun had hardly any friends at school, regardless of how hard he tried to get in everyone’s good books. “I always played as the monster in video games,” Sun said, referring to the characters that would usually end up getting beaten by the game’s hero, played by someone else. “Only in this way would they play with me,” he added.

Sun tried to report the bullying to his teachers. “They don’t really care how [bullying] can hurt a student mentally,” he said. “They just want to make sure you study hard and have good grades.” When he went to his parents for help, they thought what was happening to him was just normal children’s behavior. “They blamed me for not looking and acting like a ‘normal’ boy,” recalled Sun, who added that he was used to the people around him stereotyping men as tough and masculine.

After a long period of depression, Sun attempted suicide — and more than once. Though he got better, the mental strain impacted his studies and his score on the gaokao, China’s rigorous college entrance examination.

At primary, middle, and high schools, most bullying revolves around the gender expression of sexual minority pupils. But at Chinese universities, by which time students are more open and confident, most discrimination focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity. The survey conducted by Tongyu also showed that only 27 percent of respondents reported that their university campus is friendly or relatively friendly to sexual minority students.

Yang Zongxian, 20, told Sixth Tone that the majority of students at his university in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province are LGBT-friendly. “Although they sometimes ask questions that make me feel uncomfortable, I don’t feel as if they mean me any harm, and are merely doing so out of curiosity,” he said.

Yang started a “rainbow association” at the university, but it hasn’t been encouraged or recognized by the school yet. “We are like an underground student group that has to be careful every time we hold an event,” Yang said.

Li, who identifies as bisexual, was not a victim of school bullying. “Sissy boys are easily bullied at school; tomboys, however, are usually fine,” said the freshman at a university in Yangzhou, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province.

Li witnessed one of her “sissy” classmates being physically and mentally bullied by his peers in high school. “They hit him with badminton rackets and threw his school bag out the window,” Li recalled.

“I wanted to help him, but I was afraid of being isolated by my classmates if I did so,” confessed Li, who only gave her surname to protect her privacy. She said her university is “not LGBT-friendly at all.” “Many heterosexual students feel disgusted and offended that our association organizes activities so often,” she said.

Another student surnamed Wang, a junior at the same university in Yangzhou, confirmed to Sixth Tone that many people on campus describe LGBT students as “disgusting” and “unpresentable.”

Wang, who identifies as lesbian, recalled that a gay senior student was refused a faculty position after school leaders found out about his sexual orientation. “Many of us are afraid of coming out, as this would adversely affect our career prospects in the future,” Wang said with a sigh.

For Sun, things eventually got slightly better at university. While the verbal violence continued, the physical bullying stopped. “But I’ve become strong and confident after connecting with so many LGBT friends,” Sun said.

Over the years, Sun said he has realized that he was bullied because he was weak and didn’t stand up for himself. “If you want others to respect you,” he said, “you have to respect yourself first.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.

When You Are Old, Chinese, and Gay


Zhang Guowei, a 76-year-old bisexual veteran, is relishing his twilight years. “I couldn’t be happier with my life post-retirement,” says Zhang, who was a doctor in the army until 1994.

As a former military officer, Zhang’s monthly pension is 10,000 yuan ($1,440) — five times the average pension in Changde, the small city in central China’s Hunan province where he lives with his boyfriend. Zhang divorced his wife in 2003 and met the love of his life — Wu, who is 40 years younger — a year later on the internet. “I expect him to accompany me through the remainder of my life,” Zhang tells Sixth Tone after finishing his daily exercise routine.

Zhang says he is bisexual but prefers men. He gained support and understanding from his ex-wife and two daughters when he came out to them in 2003. When he passes on, his assets will be divided equally among his daughters and his boyfriend. “My kids have no problem sharing with Wu because they know he is the one taking care of me in my final years,” he says.

The May-December couple have been living together since 2005 in an apartment provided by the government for retired army cadres and their families. The 10-story building houses a dozen veterans in their 60s through 90s, some living alone and others with their spouses.

When Wu first moved in, Zhang told his neighbors that Wu was his gan erzi, or adopted son, whom he met online. (The Chinese concept of gan erzi allows for a sort of informal adoption of adults, with no legal or religious implications.) “I had this vague idea that they might be gay,” says 74-year-old Lu Shize, who lives downstairs. “But it’s none of my business to ask about his private life,” Lu adds.

Last year, following in other veterans’ footsteps, Zhang wrote a 218-page autobiography — including his experiences of recognizing his sexuality — and shared it with his fellow cadres. His neighbors were very understanding. “Everyone knows about us, and no one gossips or gives us a hard time,” Zhang says.

Lu, who had never before met any out gay or bisexual men, says he admires Zhang’s courage.

“Being gay or not, it doesn’t change the way I see him,” Lu says. “We are in our 70s; what’s more important than being happy and healthy?”

China’s population is rapidly aging. The proportion of the population aged 60 or older was more than 16 percent at the end of 2015, according to the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and that number is only set to increase. The nation’s changing demography brings with it challenges for managing welfare and health care, especially as fewer seniors are able to count on their families for support.

Two older men hold a symbolic wedding ceremony in Beijing, Jan. 30, 2013. ChinaFotoPress/VCG

Two older men hold a symbolic wedding ceremony in Beijing, Jan. 30, 2013. ChinaFotoPress/VCG

Decades of family-planning restrictions mean that even seniors who have children often must become self-reliant, as children born during the one-child policy can’t afford to support two parents and four grandparents. As a result, for many elders, being childless is no longer a major concern or an unusual occurrence.

Wen Xiaojun, 56, is single and childless. Immediately after he retired in November from working as a civil servant, he rented an apartment in Sanya, on the southern island of Hainan, where he is spending six months avoiding the cold of his hometown in the eastern province of Zhejiang. “I still feel young and restless,” Wen tells Sixth Tone. “Being childless makes it easy for me to travel after retirement.”

Like other older people, LGBT seniors want to have rich, fulfilling, and independent lives. They hope that retirement will give them the opportunity to focus on what they truly love.

Wen enjoys his slow-paced life in Sanya. He goes to exhibitions, takes walks along the beach, plays volleyball with locals, and sometimes meets up with men he contacts through Blued — a popular gay social app, on which he hopes to find a long-term boyfriend.

But dating isn’t easy for older gay men. “Younger generations can build a relationship quickly by kissing or having sex soon after they meet offline,” Wen explains. “But we want something more spiritual and stable.” 

Similarly, 62-year-old Ah Shan, as he’s called within the gay community, says that finding a partner is his biggest problem these days. His finances are secure, as he owns his apartment in Guangzhou — capital of southern China’s Guangdong province — and receives a monthly pension of about 5,000 yuan, but he has been single for four years and is ready for that to change. In the meantime, he is renting out one of his bedrooms to gay friends so he has some company at home.

Ah Shan poses for a picture in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 2013. Courtesy of Ah Shan

Ah Shan poses for a picture in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 2013. Courtesy of Ah Shan

Most gays, lesbians, and bisexuals of Ah Shan’s generation knew little about their sexual orientation until internet access became available at the turn of the millennium. Even when Ah Shan was working in the U.S. in the late 1980s, he refused to consider himself gay because the only information he’d heard about gay topics in China was AIDS-related or implied that homosexuality was shameful or immoral. “I think I was brainwashed,” Ah Shan laughs.

Over the last two years, Ah Shan has been working on a gay oral history project, recording the stories of older gay men in Guangzhou. He has talked to more than 60 gay men aged from 60 to 90, who have experienced some of China’s most critical historic moments, from the Cultural Revolution to the nation’s opening-up era. “If we don’t record them now, part of the important history of LGBT in China will be gone,” he says.

Many of the men are married and choose not to come out to their families. “They go to this particular park to chat with other gay men in the daytime to release their emotions, but when the sun goes down, they have to return home to bear their family responsibilities,” Ah Shan says with a sigh.

Ah Shan’s own parents passed away before he was brave enough to tell them the truth. His mother died in 2000, a year before homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness in China.

Compared with gay and bisexual men, older women find it even more difficult to disclose or discuss their sexual orientation. Since 2010, 45-year-old Yu Shi from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, has been working on an oral history project for older same-sex-attracted women across China, but she says the process of locating participants and persuading them to share their stories is tough.

“Chinese women are in a weak position in the family, which doesn’t allow them to speak out for themselves,” Yu says, adding that of the 30 or so lesbians who have taken part in the project over the last six years, only one has come out to her family. Many won’t divorce their husbands even if they have female partners. “Chinese people are very concerned with saving face, and they think it’s a loss of face to get a divorce if you’re already a grandparent,” she says.

Yu and her 40-year-old girlfriend have lived together for over a decade, but despite their enduring, loving relationship, they can’t enjoy the security of a formal union, as same-sex marriage is not yet legal in China. Some issues can be resolved by making a will, but others — like legal or medical power of attorney — remain a problem.

According to Yu, some LGBT seniors who are single and childless have considered building their own retirement estate where they can live together and take care of one another. Although they aren’t opposed to regular nursing homes, Yu says “they prefer to live in a place where they can open their hearts and share their experiences with others in the same circumstances.”

A lesbian couple kiss each other during an event in Shanghai, Dec. 22, 2013. Sun Zhan/Sixth Tone

A lesbian couple kiss each other during an event in Shanghai, Dec. 22, 2013. Sun Zhan/Sixth Tone

As more and more seniors live separately from their children, retirement facilities in China have struggled to meet growing demand. The government encourages investment in privately owned nursing homes, but so far none have been established exclusively for members of sexual minority groups.

Little public attention is given to the needs of older LGBT people, but to Wang Anke, a 50-year-old bisexual woman from Beijing, these individuals don’t do enough to stand up for themselves, either. “We are almost invisible,” she says.

Wang married her husband in 1990 and plans to spend the rest of her life with him. Though Wang considers herself happy and fortunate, she says that most older lesbian and bisexual women she knows are pessimistic about their senior years. “They’re lonely and lack emotional care,” Wang says, adding that many would rather live alone than move into a nursing home where they fear they can’t be themselves. “Loneliness will go to the grave with them.”

But while some LGBT seniors advocate dedicated nursing homes, Ah Shan opposes the idea of separate services. “In the long run, LGBT people shouldn’t lock ourselves in a so-called safe place,” he says. “What we really need is for the overall environment to allow us to live comfortably in the community.”


This article was published on Sixth Tone.